Tuesday, August 12, 2008

John Moriarty's "What the Curlew Said": Book Review.

After reading four or five-- they do run together-- of this late Kerry shaman's mythopoeic effusions, this last volume, written not long before his death from cancer, does not add much to his voluminous and often bewilderingly esoteric texts. He's surely blessed in having a patient editor at Dublin's fine Liliput Press, Anthony Farrell, who sponsored his works for two decades. That's why I was a bit surprised to find out in "Curlew" that another of his final books, "Night Journey to Buddh Gaia," had been by Farrell rejected as more of the same-old same-old. This criticism appears to hold true for whatever was published as "Night," and like his other (yes, he does write a lot) recent work, the somewhat more focused by default "Invoking Ireland," Moriarty keeps spiralling back to the constant themes that since his debut "Dreamland" have occupied his mind.

As he puts it early on in this closely printed 375 pp. tome: he makes sure "that I do not relapse into European common sense." (43) Readers may concur in this judgement, if not for the same reasons he gives. I admire much of his thought, but his manner of repetition, endlessly and idiosyncratically, may appeal more to followers of Blake, Yeats, the Upanishads, or Native American storytelling modes. He hates Aristotelian logic that insists a thing cannot be both A and not-A simultaneously. He urges "people who live and who think extramurally," looking beyond the barriers towards what's over Hadrian's Wall, what lurks in Celtic, Asian, and other indigenous remnants of hearing "what the curlew said." Reacting against our Western need to add it all up, he urges us to remember the magic that led us conceive the mathematics. Rather than pinning down perception, he advocates apperception, staying in the moment. Surprisingly, Robert Pirsig's "Zen & the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance" remains unmentioned, as does Teilhard de Chardin and the work done by physicists with the anthropic cosmological principle. I'd have appreciated such links to congenial minds. On the other hand, Moriarty possesses the deep-knowledge to penetrate the Irish language, Sanskrit and Tibetan texts, and the shamanistic aura as one who edges near the abyss in his quest over forty years.

Answering his book's title: "I think he didn't say anything at all but he said it in such a way that we have now no need, nor had we ever, to import Zen Buddhism into Ireland. It was already here before our people came here." (74) Amidst so much philosophizing, he can break into welcome clarity. He conjures up a wonderful description of his last house, near Torc Mountain in his native Kerry, where he hoped to establish a "Slí na Fírinne," a "way of truth," as a hedge school for mystics like himself. As only a farm boy could, he perceives the oneness in the peace surrounding him and the violence of foxes plundering a wren's nest to devour its "still bald chicks, they themselves, every time their mother returns with a mouth full of death, seeming to be little more than luridly shrieking voracities for insects and grubs." (297) He adds: "To survive at all on such a day I'd have to forgo being a self: where normally I would say 'I see', now in self-abeyance I would say 'seeing is'." He breaks down the "subjective-objective divide" as "a disposable piece of mental machinery, the mechanism of our alienation, turning us into spectators." He concludes: "The fourteenth way of looking at a blackbird or at Torc Mountain is to remove the one who looks from the looking."

I do wish in this sequel to his "Nostos" autobiography that he'd have told us more about his time in Connemara near Roundstone. Surely his conversations with cartographer-chronicler of that area and the Aran Islands, Tim Robinson, or his talks with the late local priest, the psychologist John O'Donohue, might have enlivened many pages. Moriarty's reticence, given his effusiveness, surprises me. An author told me that in his own meeting with Moriarty, it happened to come up by chance that he had known Ted Hughes; in "Curlew," while he cites a poem by him, there's no mention of any personal connection. Similarly, he's in Ireland here but appears too rarely grounded in the land; his affectionate exchanges with a few loved ones do soften the impact of what can be a relentlessly serious recounting of his mental and spiritual struggles, and I only wish he'd have shared more of such. He needs to humanize himself for his readers who never had the chance to hear him speak.

Anyhow, this is what we have to remember him by. He came a long way from a Kerry farm and the Irish Catholic childhood once so common to his native land. He observes, contrasting himself at twelve with a neighbor girl now: "At Mary Margaret's age we were vastly knowledgeable, and knowing, so much so that if the entire adult population suddenly died out one night, we would be out there driving cows to milk them, we could take over." (226) He laments the diminishing dream of a spiritually renewed Ireland that the rebels and revivalists failed to establish as the nation which rapidly forgets its heritage; it must have been painful for him to live there while so much changed, even as he too left behind his Christian conventions in search of a Jesus better suited to the empty tomb, akin to the Buddha contemplated on his empty throne, as a more congenial, apophatic presence for us.

This retreat from the quotidian into the less travelled roads within cost him. He does not reveal much, but you sense he teetered near the edge for a while before recovering in rural Ireland in the 1980s and 90s. There's little consideration of modern Irish in the remote coastal places he lived, where its ghosts can still be sensed in speech if not its everyday presence, but he does provide a sadly appropriate insight. He compares the English "they are buried" with the Irish "Tá síd curtha"-- "They are planted." New growth follows in a new season. Likewise, "we have laid them to rest" locks us down, while "Tá síd imithe ar Shlí na Fírinne" gives us the marvellous hope that the dead "have set out on the Trail of Truth," or as he renders it better: "They have set out on the adventure of their immortality." (63)

Only much later do we find, as he learns, that he is dying of cancer as he writes this book. He accepts it with admirable grace, noting that three decades earlier he had a lot of bad karma still to sweat out. However, he readies himself with the words of Al Hallaj: "Between me and Thee there is an 'I am' that torments me. Ah! through Thy 'I am' take away my 'I am' from between us both." (335) He differentiates physical from mystical death. "Physical death doesn't remove the obstructing 'I am'. Only God does that for us." He awaits his "final transition" with remarkable courage and admirable dignity. He anticipates desire, longing, and yearning to lose himself in Oneness. "In comparison with all of this, physical death is but an episode, many times incurred, in a continuing adventure."

This is a book that like any other one from Moriarty annoyed me but challenged me. He produces many of the same tales from Melville or Black Elk or Cú Roi or the Grand Canyon that I've read before in his works. He admits, here, his own difficulty for readers, but he insists, it seems, to follow his own stubborn path to Truth. His style may not please those wanting more rational, linear, or Aristotleian structures. He's circling and wandering through his inner journeys, and on paper they prove more a Borgesian labyrinth than a classical paradigm. Still, his shortcomings for those of us expecting more academically mimetic production parallel his refusal to go along with the philosophical career he once attempted. He proves his rebellion against the norms by his own trailblazing, for the few daring to follow. His works continue to perplex me, but perhaps they will endure in years to come when more theoretically trapped, less imaginative, scholars turn dated and dull.

One of the last sentences in this rambling, disorienting, eccentric, frustrating, and intermittently rewarding and profound collection of thoughts and stories sticks with me. "I go for broke, leaving all that I naturally and supernaturally am, leaving all I in any way am, behind me in trackless dark infinity. Over to you, God." (376) His sequel to "Nostos" reveals his readiness for a true "homecoming."

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